Paula Deen and John Galliano Have More in Common Than You Think


This article was co-authored with Matthew Rozsa.

As the culinary world continues to be rocked by the scandal over Paula Deen's racist remarks, the fashion world is being revisited by a similar specter from its past — i.e., the ghost of John Galliano. 

The ghost has broken his silence. He's been torn down to his simplest form or "Galliano in the Wilderness," as Vanity Fair is choosing to call it.

It's been about two and a half years since Galliano went on a hateful diatribe in Paris. Now he has broken his silence and has chosen to speak to the public who once relished in his genius. This is the man who brought the fantastical feathers to his work and the chiffon cut on the bias. The man who ended each runway show with a costume: he was the definition of camp and brought glamour and drama to each piece of work. This kind of artistry can never be taken away from him.

This brings us to Paris: February 23, 2011. Cobblestoned streets lined with cafes, patrons imbibing their nightly wine as they watch the “City of Lights” morph from day to night. What made this night different from all other Parisian nights? John Galliano: head designer at reputable and storied couture house Christian Dior found himself at La Perle, his neighborhood haunt and a stone’s throw from his flat. 

Although it was unknown to his adoring fans and cohort (with the exception of his closest confidantes) Galliano had been operating under a dangerous cocktail of medications and alcohol. This night was no exception. Even in an industry known for its lenience toward hedonistic excesses, it was clear that Galliano had crossed a line.  First there was his verbal assault at La Perle, where he had attacked the man for his Asian background ("Fucking Asian bastard, I'll kill you") and the woman for being Jewish ("Dirty Jewish face, you should be dead").

To make matters worse, the British tabloid The Sun posted a video four days later of Galliano telling a Jewish woman, "I love Hitler. People like you would be dead today. Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be fucking gassed, and fucking dead.” Even his superficial comments about not wanting world peace for "people that are ugly" seemed tame by comparison.

Instantly, Galliano went viral: for all the wrong reasons.

This news hit the fashion industry like a hard rock. It was time to make a decision about the future of John Galliano. First, there was the widely publicized humiliation, his dismissal from Dior, Saks Fifth Avenue pulling his men’s collection from their floors, and the criminal charges (anti-Semitic and racist remarks are illegal in France).Things culminated in his public disavowal by actress Natalie Portman — who ironically, was the face of the Dior fragrance at the time, and refused to wear a Dior confection to the Oscars that year.

This was promptly followed by two years of apologies, synagogue visits, and rehab. Now, with an interview and feature story in Vanity Fair, Galliano is hoping that this up close and personal character study can convince the public to decide that his days of repentance have come to an honorable end and will warrant forgiveness.

Two questions come to mind.

First, to what extent should a professional legacy be tarnished by revelations of severe character flaws?

It's noteworthy to mention that not everyone in the fashion world shunned Galliano after the 2011 scandal broke. Some of his closet allies stood by him personally and professionally. Soon after the incident, Galliano entered rehab, and upon his return to the real world, supermodel Kate Moss asked him to design the dress for her wedding five months after the incident. Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, is also a longtime friend and supporter of Galliano, and as such published a spread of his work for Moss' wedding. Neither Wintour nor Vogue ever released an official statement on Galliano’s fall from glory, but putting such a spread in Vogue was a statement in and of itself.

The other question is whether, in an era that is oversaturated with celebrity proclamations of remorse, to what extent can these apologies be taken seriously anymore?

In a strange way, the answers to both these questions can be reduced to a single word — catharsis. As defined by H. L. Mencken (in an essay, ironically enough, devoted to defending the death penalty), the Aristotelian notion of catharsis hold that societies have a visceral need for the "salubrious discharge of emotions, a healthy letting off of steam" whenever there is a sense that they have been wronged. For better or worse, public figures like John Galliano are held in such high regard that society itself feels wronged, even betrayed, when they fatally undermine our confidence in their character. When such a wrong is perceived to have occurred, the needs of collective social catharsis dictate that it must somehow be rectified.

Has Galliano rectified it? It seems like he has relieved it for himself, certainly. Few can doubt that he earnestly desires to move on from this incident. Then again, in his interview, he focuses a great deal on how these were manifestations of his subconscious mind. Over and over again he seems to relapse into the language of excuses — not denying accountability, per se, but still attempting to contextualize his past rather than simply accept it. He cites professional projects, personal traumas, and just about anything else he can to send the message that the monster who appeared on those Paris streets wasn't really him. It leaves the reader with a sense of questions only partially answered.

Then again, what could he say? If he is an anti-Semite, could he ever openly admit it? If he isn't, how could he reconcile what he said with his true inner convictions?

Can the public truly determine that Galliano has paid his dues, that he has showed his respect and fully come around? 

It’s hard to know. But as more celebrities embarrass themselves by slipping into the realm of the un-PC — and there is no doubt that many more will do so — this is a question that we will need to answer.